Friday, January 14, 2011

Back in the Saddle

True, Friday's and Saturday's games against Wisconsin mark the first WCHA points that will be earned at Amsoil Arena.

More than that, though, the games get UMD back in the grind of the tough league schedule, as the second half of the season begins.

Between now and March 5, UMD will finish up the league slate with 14 games, eight of which will take place at Amsoil Arena. It's a favorable schedule for UMD in terms of home/away, especially when you consider that Michigan Tech and Minnesota State aren't traditionally intimidating road trips, even if they are tough places for UMD to get wins.

(Don't sleep on Tech, which gets Brett Olson back for their weekend set against St. Lawrence.)

The Bulldogs need to keep winning games. More than that, the ability to win season series from league rivals is very important when it comes time for Pairwise comparisons. The Bulldogs have 2-0 advantages over Wisconsin, Michigan Tech, and Alaska-Anchorage already, but have work to do against Minnesota (0-1-1). They haven't played St. Cloud State (home Feb. 11-12), Minnesota State (away Feb. 18-19), Colorado College (away Feb. 25-26), or Nebraska-Omaha (home March 4-5) yet. Among them, it appears CC and UNO are the best bets to be among the top 25 of the RPI by season's end, but MSU could be a darkhorse player in the "Who makes the NCAAs?" race, because they blew through non-conference play without a loss, picking up key wins over Notre Dame and Brown in the Shillelagh Tournament.

(Brown isn't good, but that could be a big win for MSU in the Pairwise.)

Wisconsin has plenty of firepower up front, thanks to guys like Craig Smith and Mark Zengerle, but they're also well-stocked on the blue line, with two of the better offensive defensemen in the league in Jake Gardiner and Justin Schultz. Their ability to put the puck in the net is not something you see often in blue-line teammates, and they're a challenge for the Bulldogs, who can't afford to sit back and give them space.

UMD has shown the ability at times to play a more passive game. I thought they gave Minnesota too much room and respect in their Friday loss there, something the Gophers were able to take advantage of. On the other hand, they've also shown the willingness to get in opponents' faces and play that highly-competitive style. If they lean that way this weekend, they'll do well at home.

Wisconsin goalies Scott Gudmandson and Brett Bennett didn't do that great against UMD in November, but Gudmandson has really emerged as the top guy since then. The senior has ten wins and an impressive .933 save percentage. UMD has experienced some adventures in goal, and one of them was Kenny Reiter's Friday start in Madison, where he was pulled after allowing three goals on eight shots.

Goaltending and special teams matter this time of year, and UMD seems to have secured one of the three major phases. The penalty kill has been very sharp as of late, improving to 83 percent on the season over an even 100 opponent power plays. Their improvement there has bumped them to fifth in the WCHA, their highest ranking of the season. Much of that work has been without key players. Wade Bergman missed the Minnesota series. Kyle Schmidt has missed the last three games. Cody Danberg hasn't played this season, and won't now that he is officially taking a medical redshirt. If Reiter and Aaron Crandall keep playing well in goal, that takes care of the second phase, and all the Bulldogs have to do is get the power play going again.

Expect to see David Grun on the top power play unit this weekend, with Justin Fontaine working a point with Justin Faulk on the other point. Grun will have the Connollys (Jack and Mike) joining him down low. Travis Oleksuk will center the second power play unit, with Trent Palm and Brady Lamb on the points.

It's a bit of a change, but a good idea, because it might jumpstart a struggling facet of UMD's game, and it gives opponents some different combinations and ideas to think about.

No comments: